Riding with the Gauchos

The gauchos were hard, taciturn men. Their English was limited. My Spanish was worse. “Signor,” one growled and handed me the reigns of a horse he had led from of the paddock.

I grew up around horses and rode them for a term at university. Yet I have never been remotely confident with them. They always seem to be in charge.

There had been helmets whenever I had ridden them before. In Patagonia, a beret is thought protection enough. My beanie hat would have to do. We had mounting blocks back then, as well. Here in Argentina, you either swung up in one fluid movement as the gauchos did, or you floundered about like an upside down beetle until you were shoved into the saddle, like me.

We clip-clopped out of the estancia*, escorted by a fleet of dogs. The hooves kicked up the dust.

– acortar, said one of the gauchos riding alongside and holding up his reigns.

¿Que?

-acortar

-Perdón, no entiendo

“Espeak Inglis?”

-Si”

“Shorten” he said and gestured on his own reigns.

But however much I shortened the reigns, it never seemed short enough. “Shorten,” the gaucho called out repeatedly. It did not matter much, though, because the horse took no notice of me, anyway. It knew the way and followed the others. It carried on walking when I asked it to trot but, later, broke into a trot on its own initiative.

The only other guests were a couple from Venezuela, but they were more competent with horses, and spoke proper Spanish, and had signed up for a longer ride. They cantered off towards Lago Argentino with some of the gauchos.

The rest of us passed along dusty tracks into the hills. The landscape was starkly beautiful with stubbly grass and clumps of bush interspersed with rocks. The sun-bleached greens and windswept greys contrasted with the emerald green of Lago Argentino and the snow-dusted mountains beyond it and the deep blue of the sky swirling with clouds which threatened but never brought rain.

On the way back, within sight of the estancia, the horse decided that it had done enough for the day and declined to go any further. It knew full well that I had no authority to make it.  

“Come on!” I said in frustration, as if to a car which refused to start, and with just as much effect. Then ¡vamos! as if it might be a language problem. In the end, one of the gauchos had to ride back and coax the horse in. It listened to him.

Back at the estancia, I was handed a gourd of maté and a silver straw.

Yerba-maté is a plant of the holly family native to the Southern Cone countries. Its leaves have been dried, infused in hot water and drunk since pre-Colombian times. The maté gourd is as ubiquitous in modern Argentina as Styrofoam coffee cups in London at rush hour. They are cradled by passengers on buses, drivers of cars, people riding pillion on motorbikes and passed between friends in the park.

It is said to be an acquired taste, which means that it is foul to the uninitiated. I drank some out of politeness, passed back the gourd and said muchas gracias and adiós.

© Richard Senior 2020

*Ranch

Gangneung at a Gallop

The route from the station to the guest house looked straightforward enough. Cross the roundabout, down the main road. Last side-street on the left before the bridge, then take the first right.

The 202 and 303 buses ran between the Intercity Bus Terminal and the railway station. Just make sure to check that the destination board read 시내 (downtown) and not 경포 (Gyeongpo).

A 202 appeared at the top of the hill and pulled into the stop, then a 303, then a few more of each. None was heading 시내. The passengers from the Intercity bus from Gyeongju thinned out until I was the only one left. Other Intercity buses came in and disgorged their passengers and they, in turn, bundled into buses and taxis, got picked up by friends or set off on foot down the road.

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The train station would have been a perfectly sensible point of reference had it not been torn down to make way for a new line since my guidebook had been published. I would find that out later, though.

The tourist information centre gave me a route map and circled the stop nearest the guest house. It was on a street without obvious landmarks but I got there by counting off the stops on the map.

I should have taken another bus to Ojukheon House after I had dropped off my stuff but set off walking instead and was committed by the time I realised how far it was. It was a boring route with nothing to see except concrete and road signs and petrol stations.

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Ojukheon was the home of the sixteenth century artist, Shin Saimdang, and her son, the Confucian scholar, Yi I. Neither is exactly a household name in the West but they are celebrated enough locally to appear, respectively, on the 50,000 and 5,000 Won notes.

The walls are surrounded by coiffured bushes and bursts of azaleas in purple, pink and red. Two flights of steps lead through a gateway into the complex of wood-framed houses topped with swooping tiled roofs.

Further up the road, and further than I thought, is Seongyojang House which is an eighteenth century complex of hanok* houses set into woodland studded with pine trees and overlooking a lotus pond.

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After trooping round the houses and up through the trails in the woodland and looking back down on the complex, I did not much relish the long walk back to the guest house, so carried on up the road to the beach. It was, yet again, a much longer walk than expected but I eventually came to a stop for the 202 bus.

First thing next morning, I walked to the building site where the station used to be and took a rail replacement bus to Gangdong-Myeong, where the military stands ready for when the shooting starts again.

So far as the rest of the world is concerned, the Korean War ended half a century ago: a little-read chapter of a Cold War which itself is fading in the popular memory. But there was only ever a ceasefire agreement, never a peace treaty. The international forces fighting on either side went home, but the hostility between the two Koreas remained as hostilities went into uneasy stasis.

Jeongdongjin Beach (via Shutterstock)

The road to the beach is an agglomeration of tank traps, razor wire, sentry posts and heavily-armed patrols. At the optimistically-named Unification Park, there is an old US warship and a North Korean spy submarine which snarled up on rocks nearby in the Nineties and triggered an urgent manhunt. One of the crew remains unaccounted for.  

But the bellicose air evaporates at Jeongdongjin Beach at the bottom of the hill. Turquoise waves froth onto a pleasant stretch of sand. There are seafood stalls, a scenic train and a whimsical hotel in the shape of a cruise ship at the top of a hill.

Back in central Gangneung in the afternoon, I walked the five-mile trail around Gyeongpo Lake which meanders through grasslands, between pine trees, along boardwalks, past flowerbeds sculptures and statuettes, and from there up to the beach where I lazed until the light started to fade.

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I stopped to eat at one of the seafood restaurants which line the road along the beach and then took the bus back to the guest house.

Maybe it is was the Kloud beer which I washed the fish down with, but the journey seemed oddly exhilarating as the driver flung the bus round the corners and a warm breeze wafted the through the windows and the neon of the night shimmered from the facades of the buildings. 

I had allowed two weeks to make my way up South Korea from Busan to Seoul but that was tight and I was pushed for time at each stop on the way. I had to press on the next morning to Sockho.

© Richard Senior 2020

* traditional wooden houses

Mosaics and Mausoleums in Morocco

It was early in the morning and we headed north to the mountains against the traffic.  

Grands taxis careered in the other direction, towards Meknés, so crammed with passengers that they bottomed out over bumps. A man led a donkey along the side of the road. Others walked alone, dressed for work, miles from the nearest settlement.

We swung round a corner and passed a flattened jeep with its wheels in the air and shattered glass all around it. “Oo-la-la,” said the driver, but kept up the speed.

At the height of the Roman Empire, its southern border ran right across the top of North Africa from the Red Sea to the Atlantic. The province of Mauretania Tingitana in what is now Morocco stretched from Tingis (Tangier) in the north to Volubilis in the south, 20 miles or so from Meknés. It was here that Juba II, a Romanized Berber installed on the throne by Caeser Augustus, commissioned the building of a royal city in 25 BCE.   

It was already hot in the early morning. The sun dazzled and the sky was deep blue and cloud-free. I had the site to myself at that hour and wandered along the dusty lanes, poked about the ruins and scrambled over rocks and looked across the valley to the mountains.

Volubilis had been abandoned by the fourteenth century. It was ravaged by an earthquake, plundered for stone for building and all but forgotten until the French Colonial period. Excavations began before the First World War and continued after independence. About half of the 40 acre site has been dug out.

Intact mosaic floors have been unearthed in the ruins of villas, the remains of the underfloor heating exposed. A triumphal arch and part of the basilica have been pieced back together. Storks nest at the top of the reassembled columns. There are steps and plinths with Latin inscriptions and what is left of the public baths.  

Image: Shutterstock

Nestled in the mountains over the valley a few miles to the west is the town of Moulay Idriss. It is named for the founder of Morocco’s first dynasty and contains his mausoleum. It is a place of pilgrimage for Moroccans.

I declined the services of the guides who approached and tried to make my own way through the warren of lanes which thread up to the terraces at the top of the town. But I was surrounded and hassled and, in the end, it was easier to go with a guide: not so much so he could show me round but to keep the rest of the people out of my face.

We threaded between the claustrophobic walls, up flights of steps, round dogleg corners, past scabrous doors and flaking paint and sagging telephone wires and emerged on a terrace which looked down across the green roofs of the mausoleum and the scrum of houses which surround it and extend to the edge and tumble down the side of the hill.

I paid the guide his best and final price and he talked the driver into giving him baksheesh, as well. Then it was back to Meknés and a train the next morning to Rabat.

© Richard Senior 2020

Chasing the Sun Through Namibia

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South from Swakopmund to Walvis Bay, then inland. Cutting through and skirting around the Namib-Naukluft National Park and setting down for the night in Sesriem.

Up again in the early hours. You would resign if your boss made you set off so early and so often for work as needs must when travelling in Africa. Yet you accept it, if not gladly then with only muted grumbling. Most days. Getting up in what ought to be the middle of the night, dismantling and packing the tent in the dark, shaving in cold water sinks under the supervision of an oversized spider. They are, as Hemingway put it in The Green Hills of Africa, “the discomforts that you paid to make it real”.

A peachy glow at the horizon, a penumbra of blue hint at sunrise as you head out towards the dune, 45 kilometres from Sesriem Gate.

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Image: Shutterstock

It is a Thing To Do in Namibia. You have seen the pictures in the agents’ windows. The sky a cobalt blue which seems to have been created in Photoshop but is just how it is there, on a clear day. Dune 45 bifurcated by its crest. One side, in the sun, a searing orange: the other, in the shade, oil black. There is usually a Land Cruiser in the shot, at the base of dune, to show scale.

There are always Land Cruisers in the early morning, as every traveller who passes through stops off at the dune to climb the ridge and sit at the top and watch the sun come up.

It is 170 metres to the top, or 560 feet. Some of the travellers in front find it hard going, or their hearts are not really in it. They slow the line right down. It is a frustrating stop-start procession to the top.

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Image: Shutterstock

There is an odd light this morning. The sky is a lavender colour and the sporadic trees have a painterly quality.  You can tell that the sunrise will not be spectacular, but it is only polite to stay and watch it. There is a hold up again as people begin to pick their way to ground level, so you skip the queue and run straight down the side of the dune.

From there onto Deadvlei. A drive and a walk across the sand. Around the time of the first Millennium of the Common Era, floodwaters from the Tsauchab River carved out a hollow which became a marsh, where camel thorn trees took root. Two centuries later, the droughts came and the marsh dried up and dunes rose around the clay pit blocking the path of the water for evermore.

The trees died and the sun scorched their skeletons and so thoroughly drained them of moisture they cannot decompose.

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It is a starkly beautiful landscape, surreal as a Dali painting. You walk across the creamy clay, baked and tessellated by the sun. It contrasts with the rusty orange of the dunes around it. Dotted about are the remains of the trees which died in what we call the Middle Ages. You wander among them, give one an exploratory tap.

Later you head back to Sesriem, then push on south to Fish River Canyon. It is the next biggest in the world after the Grand Canyon. Less than a third as deep and half as long as long, but it has been around for 500 million years longer and, to put that into some kind of perspective it is about 250 million years since the first dinosaur, about 60 since the last.

You wander round the lip, gaze over the folds and contours of the rock and try to process the unfathomable scale. You stand at the edge and look down and, as often, someone takes it as a challenge. They balance on their hands and dangle their legs over the chasm. But you were not competing and take no notice.

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The late sun is casting deep shadows by the time you leave. There are tiny flickers of flame from campfires deep in the canyon. In the morning, you will travel on to Orange River and the next day cross into South Africa.

© Richard Senior 2020

 

On a Slow Boat in China

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I embarked at Guilin on the boat for Yangshou and went up on deck and leant on the rail at the front in the sun.

It was a slow boat and chugged sedately down the Li River, winding its way, in convoy with other boats, between the ranks of misty karsts. They stretched into the distance and faded into silhouette in shades of blue and grey and smudged with the sky at the horizon.

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Every karst with an arresting shape has a legend attached to it and a picturesque name. There is Elephant Trunk Hill and Pagoda Hill and Ox Gorge, where a peak is reckoned to be in the shape of an ox and other features to resemble lions, tigers, bats and dragons.

The word resemble does a lot of heavy lifting along the Li River. Yearning for Husband’s Return Hill, which is not such a mouthful in Chinese, has a rock which is said to resemble a man in ancient costume and another supposedly resembling a woman with a baby on her back who is gazing in his direction. A rock which is claimed to resemble a container of rice is also part of the legend. TL;DR: the couple only had rice to eat, gave it to an old lady, starved and turned to stone.

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Buffalo waded into the green-blue water and snacked on reeds. Cockle-pickers sifted through sand at the side of the water. Vendors rowed up to the boats on bamboo rafts with boxes of fruit and called out like market traders. Around towns, flotillas of boat taxis scudded out to meet passengers with tiny outboard motors screaming. Occasionally there was a river barge with a patina of rust and a roof made from corrugated sheets. Sometimes a fisherman with a cast net.

At Nine Horse Mural Hill, the cliff face looms a hundred metres above the river and the rock is exposed in piebald patches which are believed to take the shape of horses, sitting, standing, galloping, or nodding to drink from the water.

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You might notice one of the horses even if you knew nothing of the legend, three or four if you had heard it and were trying your best to see horses. The others take more imagination by orders of magnitude, and those who see them all would likely tell you that any given object you pointed out looked like a horse.

Along the river, there is Green Lotus Peak where a group of karsts is thought to look like a lotus flower and there is a two-storey pagoda first built in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE). Beyond it is Schoolboy Hill, which is a karst said to bring to mind a schoolboy reading a book.

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It takes half a day to get to Yangshou on the slow boat, but I was in no kind of hurry. The sun was hot and the landscape pleasant and the sense of peace was welcome after the bustle of Chinese cities.

I ignored the announcement to go below decks as we neared Yangshou and had the deck to myself until we docked and I went down and out and along the jetty and onto the street to find my hostel.

© Richard Senior 2020

 

Cramming in Kyoto

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Rain slashed across the windows of the Shinkansen as it slid into Kyoto station. The seconds ticked past on the platform clock, 57, 58, 59, as it slowed and stopped and the minutes changed and the doors hissed open at the precise moment they were supposed to.

I got a bus to the ryokan, checked in and dropped off my bags. It was no weather for sightseeing, but I only had three days to spare in Kyoto if I were to fit in the rest of the things I had planned before I took the ferry to Korea. I scooped up my umbrella, or at least one of several 7-11 umbrellas in the holder, crossed over the road and soggily trudged round the Nishi Hongan-ji temple. I realised soon enough that I was just going through the motions.

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Nishiki Market was further up the street and had the considerable attraction of a roof. It is a long, narrow road which extends for five blocks and has about a hundred stores and stalls. There are bustling crowds and shouting vendors, banners and lanterns and signs.

Smoke issues from the yakitori stand, broth bubbles at the ramen stall and wagyu beef sizzles on the grill. Baby octopus is stuffed with quail’s eggs, skewered and candied. Tuna is cubed, sprinkled with sesame seeds and threaded on a stick like a lolly. Barrels are filled with pickled vegetables. Bottles of sake are arranged in ranks on tables.

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The sun had returned in the morning, the sky was blue, and I was out early on the bus to Arashiyama in the mountains at the edge of the city. The big draw there is the bamboo forest, whose stalks soar thirty feet in the air either side of the path, arch in on themselves and ration the sunlight. The bamboo crackles as it sways in the breeze, a sound like the first drops of heavy rain. Sunlight dazzles through gaps in the canopy.

Though it has big sights in abundance, Kyoto for me was not so much about them as the overall ambience. I idled along rural lanes, nosed into temples and could easily have made a day of it, hiking into the mountains, seeing the monkeys in the park, taking a boat out onto the river. But I was pushed for time and took the bus back into town and another to Southern Hagashiyama.

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I wandered up Chawan-zaka, or Teapot Lane, where some of the shops sell the kyō-ware pottery for which the city is known and from which the street took its name. At the end of it, the Kiyomizu-dera temple complex stretches up and straddles the hill. It is everything you imagine of a Japanese temple with Niōmon gates, halls, shrines, statues, bells, incense, a pagoda, and a view across the trees and the city to the mountains.

I headed down from the temple with half of Japan (the other half was walking uphill) into the picturesque streets of Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka, which are lined with old wooden shophouses. It is a tourist trap, ultimately, with its teahouses and gift shops but not spoiled by that. Even gift shops are fascinating in Japan. There are curiosities, too, like a shop which only sold maneki-neko cats and had them in every size, colour and material.

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The cherry blossom season was almost over. Petals were scattered like confetti after a wedding. They clogged streams; the wind made a blizzard of them and they piled up against the trunks of the trees. I found them in my hair and stuck to my clothes. But the gift shops were still selling cherry-blossom-themed parasols and fans. I had a cherry blossom ice cream in lieu of the lunch I skipped.

More narrow streets lined with wooden houses, more temples and gardens and the Maruymama-kōen park. Then, after a solid nine hours of charging about, back to the ryokan for green tea and a soak in the onsen bath in the basement.

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I started out next morning in the Gion geisha district when the sun was rising and the streets were all but deserted. Wooden merchants’ houses from the seventeenth century line the streets. Paper lanterns hang beside each door.  The neighbourhood slowly woke up. Tourists appeared, first in twos and threes then as a crowd. A black-suited salaryman hurried through on his way to work. Occasional geishas glided by on theirs.

I walked from Gion to Northern Higashiyama and along the Path of Philosophy which traces a canal at the foot of the mountains.  There are fine temples and gardens at either end and several along the way. Promenade gardens use the borrowed scenery technique which makes the surrounding countryside appear part of them. Koi carp swim under stone bridges in pond gardens. Zen gardens have raked gravel to represent the ocean and rocks to imitate mountains.

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There are craft shops and galleries and food carts, and signs with English words in no order which makes any sense. “Manner up” one demanded. “Please refrain from the entrance of the general one,” requested another. Though I say that while being unable to write a single character of Japanese.

In the evening, in search of dinner, I walked up Ponto-chō alley, and so did the crowds. It is just across the river from Gion and has the same wooden machiya houses. Many of them have been turned into izakayas* and red or white lanterns illuminate their facades.

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There was a British-themed bar called ‘the Sent James club,’ which I worked out after a moment was a mishearing of St James, as in the green space in London between the Mall and Birdcage Walk: Sent James a Spark. Elsewhere, there was British pub called the Pig & Whistle, which sold Belgian, Irish and Japanese beers, just like a real one might.

It was raining again when I left Kyoto but thankfully it did not follow me to Hiroshima.

© Richard Senior 2020

* Informal bar/restaurant

The Bo-Kaap: a Sense of Malays

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It was a century after the Dutch East India Company founded Cape Town as a way-station for its ships.

Jan de Waal, sexton at the Groote Kerk, got into property development. He assembled a site at the foot of Signal Hill and built cheap huurhuisjes (literally, ‘hire houses’) on it. Back then, in the 1760s, they called the neighbourhood Waalendorp. It has had several names since then, but the Bo-Kaap* is the one which stuck.

The VOC** imported slaves to Cape Town from the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and Malacca (Malaysia), as well as India, Madagascar and East Africa. It sent imams there in exile for preaching against colonial rule. They were followed, later, by Muslim artisans from India and elsewhere. The community came to be known, regardless of origin, as Cape Malays.  They settled in the Bo-Kaap.

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They alone were permitted to live there under Apartheid. Other groups were forcibly  removed. Anyone is free to move there now, but that has brought controversies of its own. Activists protest about gentrification, of the traditional community being priced out, of the neighbourhood losing its character.

But, to the outsider at least, the Bo-Kaap seems barely to have changed in going on two hundred years. There might be streetlights and telephone wires, parked cars and satellite dishes. The major roads might be metalled. But its heritage is surprisingly intact.

The newest of the houses date back to the 1840s and are in a recognisably English style, flat-fronted, flat-roofed, with wooden sash windows. The oldest are built to a Dutch pattern. There are still some of Jan de Waal’s original huurhuisjes. Houses are interspersed with mosques and madrassas. Minarets sprout between the flat roofs.

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All are painted in bold colours, bright yellow, pastel pink, lime green, powder blue, lilac and ochre. Some accounts claim this as a celebration of freedom by emancipated slaves after 1834. Others suggest it is more recent: a cheerful riposte to Apartheid. Neither, though, would explain why houses of about the same period are painted in much the same way in Kentish Town, North London.

Occasional words of old Malay are still heard on the streets. The few businesses are small independents. There is Fatima Mini Market, Star Supply Store and the Rose Corner Café with “warm worsies sold here,”and “koeksisters available”. These are luminous pink local sausages and spiced doughnuts coated in desiccated coconut.

In 1946, two years before Apartheid, the Ahmed family set up in business as spice importers. They established the Atlas Trading Company which is still operating today. The shop, according to the old letters under the roofline, and above the rusting goods hoist, used to be Müller’s Reserve Store.

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Atlas were a few doors further down Wale Street when I was there in 2014. The freehand signwriting on the shutters and bricks declared their business. (They have a corporate logo now.) But you would have known if you had passed with your eyes shut what line they were in.

Inside there was a wooden unit with glass-fronted drawers. Behind it were shelves piled with spices in bags and boxes and packets. There were wooden hoppers with metal scoops laid across the lids. Nothing much seemed to have changed since 1946.

But at end of that block, on the corner with Rose Street, the Bo-Kaap segues into the world of tech stores, car showrooms and chain hotels as abruptly as if you had stepped off a film set.

© Richard Senior 2020

*Above the Cape in Afrikaans

**Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, i.e. the Dutch East India Company

At a Glacial Pace

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Three miles wide at the snout, nineteen miles long, filling the expanse between the mountains like builders’ foam; the powder blue ice, its hollows and crevices appearing backlit by the water within, juxtaposed with the deep green coniferous trees and the stark grey-black of the mountains, lightly dusted with snow and engulfed in low cloud at the margins; a wall of ice, striped with seams of deeper blue and black, rising an average of 240 foot above the surface of Largo Argentino, carved by nature into tens of thousands of tightly-packed columns ranking into the distance like an ancient army massed for battle.

The Perito Moreno glacier in the far South-West of Argentina feeds from the Southern Patagonian Ice Field which straddles the border with Chile and is the last redoubt of an Ice Age which ended 11,000 years ago. It sprawls over an area more than four times bigger than Manhattan or about two and a half times the size of Barcelona.

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Boardwalks on multiple levels connected by stairs take visitors within a few hundred feet of the snout. Pops and cracks echo from around the glacier as if hunters were out on its surface shooting birds. Calved ice litters the waters around it.

Hours could easily be spent just gazing in awe at the glacier and listening to its cracks and creaks and bangs.  But I was not just there to look.

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Three years earlier in New Zealand, I arrived in Franz Josef too late to be able to hike on the glacier, as I had hoped, and had to make do with seeing it from the foot of the mountain on my way to the bus the next morning. Now, on a different continent but back in the Southern Hemisphere, the chance had come round again.

I took a boat across the lake to the shelter on the shore by the South Wall, where I was herded into a group of about 15 and had crampons attached to my boots. Two groups were out on the ice already, one about a third of the way up, the other about a third from the summit.

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In the middle of the briefing, there was a boom as if of a cannon and then a rumbling, shuttering sound like an office block succumbing to the wrecking ball. I turned and watched as a section of ice thirty, forty, fifty feet high detached from the glacier and slid vertically into the lake, rose again as pulverised fragments and caused a tumult in the water.

We started our ascent.  The crampons, impossible on land, were intuitive on the ice. We moved slowly, in file, behind the guide.  The route weaved between cracks and ponds and glacier mills, where surface meltwater spirals into a shaft in the ice. The ice glistened in the sun. We drank the coolest, freshest water straight from the glacier.

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Then, at the summit, the first of the guides produced whisky and glasses; the other harvested ice from the glacier with an axe. ¡Salud! We drank the whisky tempered with chunks of Perito Moreno, packed up and made our way back to the shelter.

© Richard Senior 2019

 

An Afternoon in Meknès

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Lunchtime was over in the Place el-Hedim. There was one man left at the clusters of tables outside the cafes, smoking and sipping mint tea. A black-and-white cat, with no food to beg now, bent in a yoga stretch under a chair and scrubbed at its fur with its tongue. Families promenaded, hand-in-hand, line-abreast. Redoubtable ladies in pink djellabas and hijabs sceptically fingered tagines at the traders’ stalls.

In the souks beyond the square, Berber rugs hung from the walls. Babouche slippers and hand-painted plates were arranged in colour-coordinated rows. There were piles of olives and mounds of spices, and dates and figs buzzed by wasps.

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Meknès is the lesser known of Morocco’s royal cities, by which I mean I had never heard of it until I planned this trip. You could spend all day in the Medina without seeing a traveller from anywhere in the OECD, and you are hardly ever hassled. There is no need for the benign protection racket of the official guides of cities like Fèz, who are not so much there to show you round as to stop you from being constantly, constantly bothered by the men who block your way, get in your face and angrily demand to sell you some unwanted assistance.

The old cigarette seller sat on a ledge with his friend in a clean, white kufi cap and an ill-fitting jacket over a sweatshirt in the heat of the mid-afternoon. The cigarettes were an American brand with a health warning in French and the pack of 200 was unopened. People strolled by in woollen djellabas with the hoods up, and sweatshirts with the hoods down, and white thobes and prayer caps, and denim jackets and baseball caps, and none of them bought cigarettes. Scooters snarled past. Grands taxis pulled up and disgorged their passengers across the road near the iconic gateway.

Bab el-Mansour boasts in its Arabic inscription, “I am the most beautiful gate in Morocco. I am like the moon in the sky. Property and wealth are written on my front”. All of that might be true, but the gate leads to nothing but an art exhibition. There is a door nearby into the old city.

Moullay Ismail made Meknès his capital on becoming sultan in 1672. He was a son of the founder of the Alaouite dynasty which runs right through to the present-day king and his rule overlapped with Louis XIV of France and William and Mary in England.

Horse-drawn calèches stand ready to clop you round the walled city and in and out of keyhole gateways, stopping at the roofless remains of Ismail’s cavernous stables which once housed 12,000 horses but are home now to a few retiring tabbies, and the mausoleum of the sultan himself which is an opulence of zellij tiles, archways, pillars, fountains, carved stucco and worked metal.

In the late afternoon in the ville nouvelle built by the French, where the buildings are blocky and functional and the pavements are broken and the shops sell stationery and sportswear, fruit sellers congregated on the corner of the street and bantered with customers. There was a man with a pushcart filled with leafy oranges, two more with bananas in boxes which warned in Spanish that they needed to be handled with care and a father and son team selling grapes.

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An imam, spotless in head-to-toe white, stood out from a crowd in tracksuit bottoms and scuffed leather jackets. A man with dreadlocks and the backs of his shoes turned down shuffled to the bottom of Rue d’ Accra and back every half hour or so. There was some unpleasantness on Rue Antsirabe between cackling teenagers and a loudly protesting old man. They had stolen something he had leant outside a shop and run down the street with it. But a woman burst out of another shop and made them take it back.

The scene faded to darkness. The crowds thinned. The fruit sellers packed up and melted away. The shutters came down on the shops. The call to prayer floated across the roofs from the Mosque.

I had only planned to stay in Meknès as a base for Volubis and Moullay Idriss, a stopping off point between Fèz and Rabat as I travelled down the country, but it had been well worth a visit in its own right.

© Richard Senior 2019

Bab el-Mansour image: Chris Martin from Decatur, Georgia, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

Pingyao and its People

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He rattled through the streets on a motor tricycle which was as rusted as he was wrinkled with age. Half a century ago, the whole town would have dressed as the old man still did, in the rough tunic and peaked cap of his better years.

The couple with the donkey cart were silver-haired too. Though they wore modern clothes, their cart might have been already ancient when they were born. It had been built, without thought for aesthetics, from timbers which would have served for a seagoing junk.

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Pingyao is more or less bang in the centre of Shanxi Province. It is four hours from Beijing by bullet train, but the China of bullet trains seems a fantasy of science fiction from inside its city walls.

Virtually all of the 4000 buildings on more than 100 streets and lanes across the square mile within the walls were built in the Ming and Qing dynasties, between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Some are older than that, and the walls themselves have been standing since 1370. There are deep grooves worn by cartwheels in the roads leading up to the gateways.

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The dust of centuries clings to the bricks of the shops and courtyard houses. Their doors are gouged and dented from the mishaps of generations long passed. Lanterns hang underneath the swooping eaves. Silks, ceramics, antiques and decorative bottles of Shanxi black vinegar are arranged in doorways and tables outside the shops.

A mechanic has dragged a moped out of his workshop into the road. He crouches over it, surrounded by spanners, in an unwisely white vest. The unstoppable tide of domestic tourists eddies around him. Grim-faced ladies cycle against the flow on bikes which creak and crunch and squeal with every stroke of the pedals.

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The pagoda-like Market Tower broods over the main drag, which in other cities might qualify as a side street. A road sweeper leans against the wall with studied nonchalance. The reason why is working a street food stall, and he is managing to make her laugh.

Incense wafts from the splendid temples, Taoist and Confucian. There is a small Catholic church in one corner, as well. Marinated pork skewers are rotated over a grill by a contraption which looks as if it is driven by bicycle chains. A clunking museum piece of a machine laboriously produces confectionery. Hole in the wall restaurants serve Pingyao beef and Shanxi noodles, and they are a bustle of scraped chairs and excitable voices in the middle of the day.

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The city was an important banking centre in the nineteenth century, although it is hard to credit now. Rishenchang Exchange House Museum is one of several courtyard houses open to the public, either as themed museums or preserved family homes.

It was originally built in the eighteenth century for the Xiyuecheng Dye Company. To spare the worry of carting sacks of silver coins across China, the company began issuing drafts which could be cashed at any of its branches. The idea took off among merchants and became so popular that the owners of the company got out of the dyeing business and became bankers instead. Other draft banks set up in competition, in Pingyao and across the province.

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Away from the shops, the restaurants, the temples and the courtyard houses turned into museums, there are quieter corners which the tourists mostly avoid where the shops sell mundane staples and old posters are peeling from the walls.

The dust is more thickly encrusted in these parts. The lanterns are faded and ragged. Chickens scratch around junk in the courtyards. Chillies are laid out in baskets to dry in the sun. Washing is stretched out on lines across the fronts of buildings. The fruit seller has parked his three-wheeler in the shade of the parasol over his stall and is sound asleep in the back. At first horrified glance, he looks like a cadaver.

In the evening when the lanterns are lit outside the shops and the sky fades to a deep blue streaked with pink, then a deeper blue and eventually black and the air is still warm and a girl chars water spinach on a grill on the cobbled pavement with the paifan gate silhouetted behind her and a neon sign for a practitioner of traditional medicine glows in the background, the tourists thin out and the city relaxes and slows to a pace altogether more fitting.

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It is a surprise to find the road sweeper still working. But he is perhaps catching up with the work which he should have done earlier that afternoon when he was chatting to the woman with the street food stall.

© Richard Senior 2019